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People Are Systems: NASEM’s Call to Action Compels Science Educators to Transform Practice

By Michael Nocella

Posted on 2022-02-24

One word stuck with me after reading the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine’s report Call to Action for Science Education: Building Opportunity for the Future. Well actually, it wasn’t just the word, but also the feeling: hope(ful). As I read, my ego—initially skeptical and eager to condemn—was slowly transformed to humility. By the end, I found myself surrendering to the well-organized rhetoric and sound evidence that invites us all to collaboratively build a “better, more equitable science education.”

“Developing a strong, diverse science teaching workforce” is at the heart of this initiative; however, to work toward this goal, we must heed the messages clearly stated within the call to action. Most notably, this involves committing ourselves to taking a strong active stance that confronts the racial and gender inequities that continue to exist in and assert themselves upon science education.

On the surface, this document may appear to be written for systems: the government, schools, the private sector, and so on. And in the words of one of my most foundational mentors, “Systems suck.” Pause. I think what she meant by this is that people can always find ways to blame the system, but actually, the system is created and maintained by people. Systems require people to continue and to change. Being inactive or accepting the status quo is yielding to the system. To be active (engage in activism) is to be consciously responsive to, as well as be within and beyond, the system. So what does that mean?

To rephrase, science education includes policy makers, practitioners (both formal and informal), researchers, parents, and students. And we are most effective at making effective changes when we cast our egos aside and welcome one another’s insights as fellow people. We cannot afford to be solely reactive and wait for interest convergence to stimulate action amidst an ongoing catastrophe. The cost has already been too great for those—predominantly our Kinfolk of Color—who have been and continue to be underserved, commodified, forgotten, and deliberately excluded by our science education system specifically and the education system broadly.

Teachers are public servants. That is our commitment and our passion. As such, better serving the public starts with having a better representation of the public within science education, in both identity and in practice. This requires significant personal and collective action. Inviting and retaining high–quality anti-racist/anti-oppressionist educators into the service of our local and global community is going to take some serious reframing and ongoing self-work for many of us, myself included, and for our Kinfolk of Color. The system needs to start doing work both for and with them. We ask our students daily to use their imagination and open their minds to new realities. Is it really that hard for us to do the same? A new, better reality is possible.

The awe of science and the practice of science affect all of us as participants in the natural world. Answering how to work toward a “better, more equitable science education” won’t and can’t come from just one of us. It must come from all of us. This isn’t a deflection of responsibility, but rather an acknowledgement of its magnitude. Let’s not forget that bystanders send a message, too, that the status quo is okay. It’s not okay. “Better” doesn’t imply that there is an endpoint, but there must be a starting point when we begin coordinating efforts as a people to find a “common voice,” rather than “siloed initiatives.” Not nearly enough people are doing this work. Those who have are eager for others to join them. The time is now.

Michael Nocella

Michael Nocella is in his 11th year of high school chemistry teaching, having served seven of those at Niles West High School in Skokie, Illinois, and has since taught at Adlai E. Stevenson High School in Lincolnshire, Illinois. He is in his fourth year as a PhD student in Math and Science Education at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Nocella’s professional and research interests center on anti-racist/anti-oppressionist science teaching practices, critical affinity/solidarity spaces for educational staff, student-led inquiry pedagogical frameworks, and the role of racial/sociopolitical identity self-work of white science educators in working to become more anti-racist in their personal and professional contexts.

Note: This article is featured in the February 2022 issue of Next Gen Navigator, an e-newsletter from NSTA delivering information, insights, resources, and professional learning opportunities for science educators by science educators focusing on the themes highlighted in Call to Action for Science Education and on the Next Generation Science Standards and three-dimensional instruction. Click here to sign up to receive the Navigator.

The mission of NSTA is to transform science education to benefit all through professional learning, partnerships, and advocacy.


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